Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

1. Decius |
Give up the faith or die: the church

Decius is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 11, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The erudite emperor Decius sees in Christianity a menace that must be wiped out once and for all, and with brutal efficiency sets out to do just that

Decius - Give up the faith or die: the church’s grim choice

Decius - Give up the faith or die: the church’s grim choice
The year is 250, and at the door of one of North Africa’s many Christian churches a soldier reads out the emperor Decius’s solution for the failing Roman Empire. The loyalty of citizens is to be tested, with Christians marked for special attention. Leaders of the Church are to be surrendered for imprisonment and death. The rest of the faithful can survive only through oaths of fealty and offerings to the gods and to the emperor. Christianity, Decius declares, is to be eradicated.

For Christians approaching the middle years of the third century, life in the Roman Empire had been remarkably tranquil. True, persecution had broken out from time to time in isolated areas over the past four decades. But Christian congregations could be found in all major centers and many smaller ones and, in the main, they had been free from the dreaded knock on the door at night, from harassment by the police, and from beating and mutilation at the hands of infuriated mobs. However, in the year 249, with the death of the emperor Philip the Arab, who some said was a Christian himself, Christians with long memories read ominous signs. Very dark days were ahead.

They had good reason to think so. Philip had died that year at the hands of the able and aggressive Decius, a man Christians spoke of in hushed tones, even dreading to mention his name. He was known to regard Christianity as a menace to the very existence of the empire. It must be scoured from the face of the earth by whatever means necessary, he had declared. So the accession of Decius caused Christians to tremble. Their long respite had ended, they feared. The horrors recalled by their parents and grandparents were about to begin again.

They didn’t have long to wait. The trouble materialized full-blown with an edict against the practice of Christianity, issued by the new emperor in 250. The response to it was instantaneous. Everywhere persecution and martyrdoms took place. In Sicily, a young Christian woman who would come to be known as St. Agatha caught the eye of the governor, who was so affected by her beauty that he pleaded with her to renounce her religion. Her refusal brought her death on hot coals. At Toulouse, Saturninus was tied to a wild bull and dragged to death. Bishop Babylas of Antioch (the man who, in fable if not in fact, had required the Emperor Philip to do penance) was martyred. In Caesarea, Origen was imprisoned and tortured, dying from his wounds three years later.

In Asia Minor, the frightened Bishop Gregory of Cappadocia fled his see while accepting the fact that most of his converts had fled their new faith. The bishop of Smyrna and other leading Christians of the city succumbed to the threat of persecution, and offered ceremonial sacrifices to the cult of the emperor. The persecution in Egypt is said to have taken sadistic forms as the authorities seemed eager to satisfy the blood lust of the mob. Women were beheaded. Many Christians were burned alive. Others died during a variety of tortures that inflicted pain beyond human endurance.

Desperate to escape such fates, some Christians bought certificates falsely documenting that they had worshiped the emperor as ordered, or they bribed their friends to obtain the documents. Others, in the larger cities, went into hiding, but whole congregations apostatized in smaller towns where hiding was impossible.

For Decius, the sudden crackdown merely confronted one of the many dangerous problems that beset his empire. It was showing signs of imminent collapse. There were worrisome doubts about the viability of its economy. Division was chronic at the highest level. Romans warred against Romans, soldiers proclaimed soldiers as emperors. Goths and a myriad of other German tribes crossed the frontier unchallenged to raid, pillage and destroy the towns and cities beyond. In the East, a new royal house in Persia laid claim to the whole Roman Empire east of the Aegean and Mediterranean.

What was needed, Decius concluded, was a resurgence of the ancient Roman purity and vigor by forcibly restoring the proper worship of the gods of the state, a practice that was in serious decline. But obstructing this, even jeering it, was this peculiar sect known as the Christians, with their roots in Palestine and Judaism, steadily growing and becoming more troublingly visible everywhere.

He had strong support for his edict, particularly among the ancient senatorial families at Rome. After killing Philip in battle near Verona in September 249, Decius was showered with accolades by a once hostile senate. It bestowed upon him the full title of Imperator Caesar, and gave him a multitude of other titles and names–Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius Pius Felix Invictus Augustus Pontifex Maximus Optimus Maximusque Princeps Tribuniciae Potestatis Pater Patriae and Consul.

He was an erudite man, even able to write his own speeches, an ability rare among soldiers. But then he really wasn’t a soldier-emperor. Unlike his immediate predecessors, he was a son of the Roman aristocracy that had moved to the provinces. Born about 190 at Budalia (see map page 131, D3) in Lower Pannonia (the future Slovakia), he spent his formative years in the Danube region, where the military spirit and early Roman virtues were the strongest of anywhere in the empire.

In his youth, he had moved to Rome, a young man of lean and determined face, with thin lips and a narrow nose. He married into an old Italian family, as had his father. He advanced through a normal senatorial career, not as a soldier, but as a bureaucrat. His many years of public service saw him hold several important positions, including city prefect of Rome, and carry out his duties justly and well.

As emperor, he acted swiftly, launching a vast reorganization of government, laying out public works projects, and distributing money to the people, a custom for new emperors. He began immediately to strengthen the defenses against barbarian raids over the Danube. Much to the satisfaction of the Senate, he restored the senatorially appointed office of “censor,” abolished some 270 years before. Not only did the censor keep the census, the official register of Roman citizens, he also determined who was not worthy or morally fit for citizenship; he could even remove a senator from office. The senators chose as the first censor the popular Licinius Valerianus, Valerian for short, a well-intended man of unfortunate omen for the Christians, and if anything, a worse omen for Rome itself.

But most determinedly, Decius reinforced the religious cult of the emperor, still regionally popular in the East, where cities kept temples dedicated to it. Solemn oaths were invoked in the emperor’s name. His image, with a radiated crown symbolizing the sun god, was imprinted on Roman coinage. To worship the emperor was to worship Rome, and the prosperity of one seemed inextricably tied to the prosperity of the other. Much of the population supported Decius. They saw in the barbarian invasions, in the widespread poverty, in the outbreaks of plague and in every other illness and natural calamity, the anger of the gods toward a backsliding empire.

Christians, of course, participated neither in emperor worship nor in the worship of any of the empire’s other deities. They shunned the myriad festivals and rituals for the gods. Their neighbors called them atheists because they dishonored the traditional deities, and accused them of conducting their own secret and despicable rites. For their part, Christians believed that pagans faced an eternity of fire and torment. They saw themselves as soldiers in the army of Jesus, an army they considered the best defense for the empire.

Christianity had grown relatively unabated between 212 and 249. Few Christians of the time had suffered for their belief, and even fewer had been forced to choose between life and their faith. Moreover, the large cities offered an unlimited buffet of temptations and had seduced many Christians through pride and ambition. Even bishops had succumbed to worldliness and gain.

It was a period, lamented Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, when men and women dishonored the image of God, oaths were taken and broken lightly, when Christian married non-Christian, when clergy engaged in questionable relationships with unmarried women, when rancor and hatred ran riot, and services were held in an atmosphere of gossip and frivolity.

Decius’s edict was issued in the waning days of 249 or the first days of 250. It was the first imperial attempt to enforce religious conformity on people throughout the empire, and it came in two parts, one addressed to the public and the other addressed to imperial officials. The first decreed that between one and fifty days after the arrival of the edict, everyone must make sacrifice to the gods and to the emperor. Anyone refusing to pour a libation and taste sacrificial meat was presumed to be Christian and ordered tortured or banished. In addition, anyone professing Christianity, or assembling for Christian worship, was committing a crime.

Though the exact wording of the “loathsome edict,” as the Christians called it, has not survived, historians have pieced together its provisions from documents associated with it–like the certificates, or libelli, issued in Egypt, which stated that the person named had always sacrificed to the gods and was doing so now in the presence of commission members. One read, in part:

To those superintending the sacrifices of the village of Theadelphia, from Aurelia Bellias, daughter of Peteres, and her daughter Capinis. We have sacrificed to the gods all along, and now in your presences according to orders I poured a libation and sacrificed and tasted of the sacred offerings, and I request you to subscribe this for us. [Signatures:] We, Aurelius Serenus and Aurelius Hermas, saw you sacrificing. Signed by me, Hermas.

Decius did not seek the death of Christians, but rather their acquiescence. If gentle persuasion didn’t work, then the recalcitrant could be tortured, starved, banished, and relieved of all personal property. Death was a last resort. The second part of the edict established a bureaucracy to enforce it. It called for commissions of notable citizens who would preside over the sacrifices, issue libelli, and record the names of those who complied. They could impose the lesser penalties; only a proconsul after further investigation could impose death.

Events moved rapidly. On the theory that to kill the head was to kill the body, the primary target was the church’s leadership. One of the first victims in Rome was Bishop Fabian, who met his death on January 20, 250. No details have been preserved of his trial or martyrdom.1 Two of Fabian’s presbyters and two subdeacons were jailed soon after, followed by other clergy and some members of the imperial household. Some died in prison, some were executed, some were sent to die a slow death in the awful mines (see sidebar page 122). Prisons in Decius’s time were unspeakably vile hellholes, lacking air, light and living space. The guards were brutal. What little food was available was usually contaminated or spoiled, and drinking water was polluted. Many Christians spent long months in these appalling conditions awaiting their fate. Death sentences were rarely carried out quickly. The condemned were made to endure lengthy and agonizing torture to terrify others. Simple beheading was considered an act of mercy.

The edict reached Carthage in the first months of 250. Some ignored it and suffered. Some fled. A large number rushed out to sacrifice and to obtain libelli. “At the very first publication of the (edict),” wrote Carthage’s Bishop Cyprian, “the greater part of the brethren fell away and betrayed their faith. . . . They did not even wait to be summoned, much less refuse to obey the command. Before the battle began, many were conquered and overthrown without meeting the shock, not even delaying long enough to give the appearance of sacrificing against their will.”

A capitulation of faith was made easy. The government’s demands seemed simple, straightforward, even reasonable. After all, good citizenship required obedience, and all a worshiper had to do was approach the altar in the morning with an animal and sacrifice it. Or if the person could not afford an animal, a pinch of incense thrown onto the altar would suffice. It was all neat and clean, and merely an outward appearance. Surely God knew what was really in the heart, and the emperor did not really want them to cease being Christians, merely to respect the empire’s traditions as well. Such was the rationalization.

Still, for some of the lapsi, the “lapsed,” as they came to be known, apostasy came with a price. Cyprian described one person who was “seized with dumbness immediately after he had done the deed.” A woman was said to have bitten her tongue, “which had tasted and uttered the evil thing,” and died after suffering unspecified “internal agonies.” A husband dragged his wife to the altar, where her hands were forcibly held during the sacrifice. “It is not I, but you who sacrificed!” she exclaimed before she was sentenced to banishment. Others were led to recant, even by their clergy.

As the edict reached out into the empire, so too did the instances of defiant heroism. Pionius, a priest from Smyrna, was well known in that great Asian port city on the Aegean for his straightforward eloquence, lively banter, and sheer goodness. Upon arrest, Pionius was determined to testify forthrightly for his faith. To show everyone who watched, as he was marched through the streets, that he was not going to participate in a pagan sacrifice, he put a rope around his neck and the necks of his companions. He was taken to the temple, where he addressed the loud and insulting crowd in the languages of the city. He quoted Homer to the Greeks, reminding them that the poet had declared that it was a sacrilege to taunt those who were about to die. The Jews he confronted with the words of Solomon and Moses. He also warned that punishment would befall those who killed Christians.

His eloquence was so moving that members of the crowd cried out to him, urging him to make the sacrifice and save his life. “Don’t be obstinate,” they implored. “Life is sweet, Pionius, and the light of day is good!”

To which he replied: “Yes, life is sweet, I know, but another life is waiting for us! And the light here is good, but it is the true light that we dream of possessing!”

“Your task is to conquer or to punish,” he told a faltering inquisitor. “You cannot conquer me, so get on with the punishment!”

Pionius was sent to prison to await his execution, but he was not left long in his foul and dark dungeon to pray in peace and to prepare for death. Soon he was taken from his cell, placed on the rack, and torn with iron vises. Though urged by his bishop to save himself and sacrifice to the gods, through it all he did not waver. And when he was led into the arena, torn and bloodied, to be burned alive in front of the clamorous spectators, Pionius removed his clothes by himself, leaned against the stake, and ordered the executioners to nail him to it. As the flames were about to engulf him, Pionius cried out: “I hasten to my death so that I may awaken all the earlier in the Resurrection.”

Pionius was not alone. There was Nestor, bishop of Magydus, who was so well respected that after being tortured and hanged, dying upon a cross, he exhorted the crowd to pray, and Christians and non-Christians knelt and prayed while he breathed his last breath. There was Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem and a friend of Origen, whom the beasts refused to attack, and who instead died in chains, in prison. There was Polyeuctus of Cappadocia, who was executed summarily after defiantly tearing up the imperial edict in the public square. Then there were Pergentinus and Laurentinus, two brothers who were still attending school at Arezzo in Umbria when they were brought before the court. Although they admitted to being Christians, they were released because of their youth and their nobility. They immediately set out on a successful evangelistic campaign, converting many before being arrested again and beheaded. Her youth did not save Agnes of Rome, aged twelve or thirteen, who was also beheaded. There were Mappalicus and his seventeen companions in Carthage who joined him in death–one under torture, another in the mines, and fifteen of starvation in two filthy, foul-smelling cells.

Though the Decian persecution lasted less than two years, it engulfed the entire Christian world in chaos. Parents and children no longer trusted one another, particularly if they were from households where Christians and non-Christians lived together as family. Those weak in conviction looked to their leaders for guidance and strength, but many bishops and members of the clergy took the easy road themselves. Some paid for their certificates with bribes. Still others fled into the wilderness or to other hiding places. Others held fast for a while, but sacrificed after suffering tortures. But some sustained their faith through every manner of ordeal. “Proof was given,” wrote Cyprian, “when your brethren entered the proud fight, for they showed all the others how to overcome torture, and gave an example of valor and faith. They fought in the forefront of the battle until the enemy retired vanquished before them.”

By 251, the fires of the persecutions were failing. Whatever damage the edict inflicted on the Christians, it did not notably restore the rectitude of ancient Rome. As months went by, the edict appealed only to the baser instincts of the eastern rabble, which is why many non-Christians, disgusted at the mob’s enjoyment of blood and suffering, breathed a general sigh of relief when Rome, in the absence of the emperor, refused to continue the persecutions.

Decius’s personal attention had been diverted by far more pressing issues–a civil war in Gaul, the outbreak of a plague that was to last twenty years, and a major barbarian breakthrough into Greece. He left Rome to confront the Goth chieftain Kniva near Nicopolis on the Adriatic coast. Kniva was defeated, losing more than thirty thousand men, but was not himself killed. Instead he took up with a second Gothic force, surprised Decius’s army as it rested at Beroea, 150 miles to the northeast, and slaughtered it. Decius escaped to the north with what was left of his army into Moesia on the Danube, where the governor Gallus still had an army intact.

In June 251, Kniva lured Decius and his son, along with their troops, into the marshes near Abrittus, south of the Danube, in the future Bulgaria. His son perished first. No one must mourn, ordered Decius in a memorable line. “The death of one soldier is not a great loss to the republic.” He then heroically led his troops into the bogs, where they were butchered as they floundered to gain their footing. The bodies of the emperor and his son were never recovered.

The Senate declared them gods, but it was the first time a Roman emperor was to die in battle at the hands of an enemy of Rome, a defeat from which, in the view of some historians, Roman fortunes on the Danube would never fully recover. Gallus then compounded the disaster by bribing the Goths into retiring back across the frontier to help defend the empire from other barbarian invaders. In September 251, the army proclaimed Gallus emperor, while rumor spread that he had plotted Decius’s defeat, either by conspiring with the Goths or by holding back reinforcements.

Decius’s short-lived attempt to revive the empire’s majesty had miserably failed, and Gallus now faced a crisis on every front. Barbarians were attacking Italy from the north, the Persians were invading Syria to the east, and the Christians were growing again.

Worst of all, the plague’s toll was mounting. By the spring of 252, it had claimed the life of the only surviving son of Decius, whom Gallus had made co-ruler in an attempt to dispel the rumors that he’d betrayed his father. The plague was killing five thousand people in Rome every day. Panic had seized the people of Africa, where half the population of Alexandria was to die. Homes were abandoned, and sick friends and family were tossed into the streets with the dead and the dying who pleaded for pity. No pity was found except from Christians who tended the sick regardless of their religious beliefs. Gallus was called upon to do something to stop the pestilence, and so he ordered all persons to sacrifice to the gods on behalf of the entire empire.

This gave him the opportunity to rid the empire of the remaining Christian bishops, but he took little advantage of it. Cornelius, the new bishop of Rome, was arrested and died in prison in 253. The next bishop, Lucius, was exiled, but was allowed to return after several months. By then Gallus had far more weighty problems to contend with. The Persian king, Shapur, had taken Armenia, Rome’s buffer against the Persian Empire, then had invaded and looted Syria virtually unopposed.

On the Danube, Gallus’s bribe-purchased peace did not long restrain the Goths. Those not subject to Kniva stormed over the river, where they were blocked by Aemilian, the new governor of Moesia. Victorious against the Goths, Aemilian now marched on Rome to challenge Gallus. The two armies met about fifty miles north of the city, but no battle ensued. Gallus’s men, discerning inevitable defeat, killed Gallus and his son, then joined Aemilian. Aemilian now faced Valerian, the man the Senate had named censor, who was currently in command of Roman forces on the Rhine and was marching south to restore senatorial control of the army. His men had already named him emperor. Aemilian’s troops promptly switched their allegiance, murdered Aemilian after a reign of three months, and prepared to welcome Valerian to the capital.

Valerian–Publius Licinius Valerianus was born about 195 into a distinguished Etrurian family. Loyalty to constituted authority was his marked trait, though it was the dubiously legitimate Gallus who had put him in charge of the formidable legions of the Upper Rhine. The Senate gave Valerian a hearty reception and granted him imperial titles when he entered Rome in August. Among his first official acts was the elevation of his thirty-five-year-old son, Gallienus, to the position of co-emperor. At last, said the senators, Rome had a ruler with no trace of provincial barbarism. Valerian’s background lay deep in an ancient Roman family. The empire would again have at its head a true Roman, a man who was magnanimous, urbane, closely connected to the ancient city, and devoted to a way of life that must not fail.

It was now the late summer of 253 and turmoil prevailed everywhere. Goths and Persians ran rampant on the frontiers. Brigands roamed the countryside. Pirates plundered merchant ships on the Black Sea. The plague continued unabated. Inflation spiraled upward. Inscriptions were no longer being carved on imperial monuments in the province of Dacia because invading Goths had destroyed them as fast as they rose, and Dacian cities were no longer able to strike coins for local use. As had Decius, Valerian needed to act promptly. He dispatched his son Gallienus to confront a new German incursion along the Rhine, while he moved east to meet the Goths, now raiding by sea along the eastern coasts. The Christians, meanwhile, took advantage of a four-year respite, grappled with the problems posed by the return of the lapsed, and added throngs to their numbers. Valerian, observed Alexandria’s Bishop Dionysius, was kind and friendly to the Christians. So many Christians worked in his household it was almost a church in itself. Indeed, Valerian’s own daughter-in-law was believed to be Christian.

Quite suddenly, however, in August 257, Dionysius was given horrific reason to revise this enthusiastic estimate. The emperor issued the first of two edicts that renewed the Christian persecutions. The desperate Valerian had concluded, like Decius, that only the intervention of the pagan gods could restore the imperial fortunes.

The first edict, directed at the clergy, was designed to encourage Christians to join their neighbors in regaining the favor of the gods. The terms were mild and required only that anyone not observing the Roman religion show loyalty by giving a token recognition of the ceremonies. But it also banned all Christian services, including those in cemeteries where Christians traditionally gathered. Many bishops refused to obey, among them Cyprian and Dionysius. These were exiled.

Still the gods frowned, meaning that the problems remained. So the second edict in the summer of 258 was the most vicious ever. It called for the execution of bishops, presbyters and deacons. High-ranking laymen were to lose their civil status and their property. Any aristocrat in the church who did not renounce the faith was also to be executed. The intent of the edict was twofold: to force Christians to recant their faith and worship Roman gods, and to restore the depleting treasury with the confiscated property of the church and its wealthier members.

The first to die was Bishop Sixtus of Rome. One of his deacons, the young and virtuous Laurence, begged that Sixtus allow him to die with him. Alban Butler’s The Lives of the Saints (first published in 1756) tells the cherished story: “Where are you going, O holy priest, without your deacon?” Laurence is reported to have said. “Wherein have I displeased you? Have you found me wanting to my duty?” Sixtus comforted him with this answer: “I do not leave you, my son, but a greater trial and a more glorious victory are reserved for you, who are stout and in the vigor of youth. . . . You shall follow me in three days.” Sixtus told Laurence that in the limited time remaining to him he should immediately distribute the considerable treasury of the church at Rome to the poor–some fifteen hundred of them. Laurence set out immediately to sell the church’s golden ornaments and jeweled ceremonial vessels.

When the prefect of Rome got wind that this wealth was available, he summoned Laurence and told him to produce the items, saying without cracking a smile, “I am told that according to your doctrine, you must render to Caesar the things that belong to him.” Laurence promised to make an inventory of the church treasures and give it to the prefect. He spent the next three days going all over the city, gathering up at the church, writes Butler, “the decrepit, the blind, the lame, the maimed, the lepers, orphans, widows and virgins.” He then invited the prefect to come and see the treasure of the church. The prefect, disappointed and appalled at what he saw, began ranting and raving. Responded Laurence: “What are you displeased at? The gold which you so eagerly desire is a vile metal, and serves to incite men to all manner of crimes. The light of heaven is the true gold which these poor objects enjoy. . . . These poor persons are . . . the church’s crown, by which it is pleasing to Christ; it has no other riches.”

The furious prefect ordered Laurence to be burned to death, slowly, on a red-hot gridiron. The deacon was seized and held while the coals were heated, then placed on the glowing metal. His eyes ablaze with divine love, Laurence gave no sign of feeling any pain, and at one point told his tormentors cheerfully, “Let my body be now turned, one side is broiled enough.”

Many who had gathered to watch, including several senators, were so moved by his heroism and faith that they declared themselves Christians as well. According to the poet Prudentius, Laurence’s death marked the beginning of the end for idolatry in Rome. Later, during Constantine’s reign, a magnificent church was built over Laurence’s tomb. Hundreds of churches, schools, chapels, hospitals and other places throughout the world commemorate him. The broad, majestic river that drains North America’s five Great Lakes, and most of eastern Canada to the sea, preserves his name.2

Among other martyrs from Rome were Saints Anastasia and Cyril, who would come to be venerated particularly in the East. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, was also to be among the first North African martyrs under the new edict. In Carthage, the persecution intensified until the city was in bedlam. Christians were arrested, imprisoned and executed. In 258, on a hill overlooking a Roman garrison town in northeastern Gaul, the local bishop, Dionysius, was arrested for having aroused the ire of local pagans. He was imprisoned, tortured and beheaded, and his body thrown into the river. Because of a legend that he was later seen carrying his head to the top of the hill, it became known as Montmartre (Mount of the Martyr), the river was the Seine, the Roman town was called Paris, and Saint Denys (as the name would descend into French) would become the patron saint of France.

In Numidia, exiled bishops and priests were brought back to be executed along with other Christians. In the eastern part of the empire, where the persecution was less severe, three peasants were fed to the beasts. In the Spanish coastal city of Tarragon, the bishop and two deacons were tied to stakes and burned alive. The terror continued unabated through 259, when the futures of Christianity and the empire came to the proverbial historic crossroads.

While the latest persecution was creating further havoc for the church, the gods still were withholding their favor from Valerian. In 259, the ravages of the plague so weakened his army as he passed through Cappadocia on his way to fight the Goths that he was forced to turn back to the safety of Samosata (see map page 131, F3), the fortified city that guarded an important crossing point of the Euphrates River. Here, he hoped to rebuild his ruined army. It was not to be. The Persian king Shapur was advancing to retake the city he had plundered three years earlier.

Details of what happened next are sketchy and conflicting. Some accounts say that Valerian realized he could not win a battle with the Persian king, and so, in the summer of 260, he offered a large sum of money in return for peace. Shapur declined the offer and asked for a personal meeting with Valerian, probably because he knew the emperor was negotiating out of desperation. The emperor agreed to the meeting, but he was taken prisoner shortly after his arrival. Nothing is known for sure about Valerian’s fate, other than that his son offered no ransom and that he died in captivity.

According to some Persian sources, Valerian spent the remaining months of his life in chains, serving as a human step stool whenever King Shapur entered his carriage or mounted his horse.3 Other accounts offer a variation. They say that upon his death, Valerian’s body was stuffed with straw and used as a footstool. Regardless, Christians of the time saw the hated Valerian’s demise as the will of God.

His son, Gallienus, acted quickly to consolidate his power. He realized that a continuing religious feud with the strong Christian minority was detrimental both to the empire and to his own future. After all, the Christians had never shown political disloyalty to Rome, but only to her gods. He saw that his father’s fruitless persecutions in the name of tradition and religion had been mistakes he could not afford to continue. Therefore, in a move calculated to gain public support, he issued an edict of toleration that returned to the church its confiscated property, places of worship, and cemeteries. He also ordered his governors to permit all bishops to perform their duties in peace, and to allow full freedom to the practice of Christianity.

Whatever the rationale behind it, Gallienus’s edict was a milestone. For the first time, Christians found their faith legally recognized by the empire. Within the church, however, peace was not to be found. Since the waning days of the Decian persecution, church leaders had grappled with the question of what to do about the lapsi, which was tied directly to the much larger question surrounding the authority of the bishop. Rather than confess faith and face the consequent torment, thousands of Christians had simply apostatized. Were they to be allowed back in? If they were, didn’t that suggest that those who had stood fast and lost their lives did so needlessly? But if the lapsi were not to be let back in, did it mean that any sin committed after baptism was beyond forgiveness?

These questions would in the long run do far more damage to the church than either the Decian or Valerian persecutions. They would divide the flock, pitting Christian against Christian and bishop against bishop. For it was division from within, far more than persecution from without, that would always pose the most lethal threat to the Christian body.

This is the end of the Decius category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 11, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Decius from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at